In Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls,” the local bartender, Bea, has become a fan of baseball despite her best efforts:
Having tended bar for forty years, Bea had watched several thousand ball games she had no interest in, only to discover at this late date that she’d picked up so damn much knowledge about baseball that she halfway enjoyed it. And she’d come to believe life was like that: you could enjoy almost anything if you gave it enough time.
Russo is surely one of the most sensible novelists, and “Empire Falls” is filled with similar such small gems. What Bea has experienced could broadly be how America views baseball, too. Although its popularity has been eclipsed by football and even basketball, America has picked up so much knowledge about baseball over the course of the nation’s history, that, well, it still halfway enjoys it. And so perhaps it should be unsurprising that Chad Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding, a.k.a. (as it seems to be known) “the baseball novel,” should be roughly analogous to the sport that drives its plot.
The beginning of “The Art of Fielding” certainly was about as interesting as an error-filled late season game, staffed by backups and with no seeding on the line: we have a rather banal introduction to the book’s most banal character, Henry Skrimsander (his cheeky name being the most possessing thing about him), a rather thoughtless one-note shortstop who is drawn to play college at Wisconsin’s Westish College (a fictional creation of Harbach’s) by the trash-talking Mike Schwartz. Slightly more interesting is the backstory of Westish’s president, Guert Affenlight, who has built his academic fame on a book titled “The Sperm Squeezers,” and the backstory of Guert’s in-existential-crisis daughter, who has abruptly left her husband. And then there is Affenlight’s eventual lover, Owen, who awkwardly announces himself to Henry on move-in day as Henry’s “gay mulatto roommate,” and who is jammed into the plot rather haphazardly. Owen rarely speaks a believable line of dialogue. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it didn’t seem Harbach was striving for a dose of Franzian realism. Indeed, Franzen’s influence is strongly felt throughout the entire work—although one wonders if his blurb on the jacket cover didn’t perhaps bias this observation. More than once, the thought crossed this reader’s mind that, if he had written “The Art of Fielding,” Franzen would have left in his desk drawer. Judging by his blurb, though, this must not be true.
This review is starting to seem rather harsh. Despite the wobbles, the novel does improve drastically as it rounds the bases (apologies—that pun couldn’t be avoided). Henry becomes the star shortstop of the “Harpooners” (only one of the myriad Melville references), who have not had the most glory-filled of histories. Indeed, the Harpooners have never won a conference championship, and are hoping that the combination of Henry, the everyman catcher Schwartz (now Henry’s best friend, he of the aching-knee, older-than-his-age archetype—think a younger version of Tom Bergeron from “Major League”) and a few other overlooked ringers will push them toward contention. I felt myself rooting for the Harpooners—after all, how couldn’t one for a team invoking poor Melville, who was so cruelly denied the fame he deserved for “Moby Dick”? And, I was rooting, too, for the mopey Pella, who sheds her initial whininess by working in the dorm’s kitchen. After the slow start, “The Art of Fielding” never ceased to be entertaining.
While the obstacles for Henry end up being his own mind—he gets a variance of the infamous Steve Blass Disease, after an incident nearly identical to what happened to Blass-inflicted Chuck Knoblauch—for Afflenlight, it’s his newfound love for the erudite Owen. Despite the nom de ridiculous, Guert turns out to be one of the best sources of pathos, if being almost as much of a one-noter as Henry. He possesses what Franzen wrote, in “Freedom,” that all college students have: “a shallow affability” (that would be affable could perhaps be deduced from his surname). In a more interesting novel, Affenlight’s relationship with Owen would have caused a bit more trouble than it ultimately does. After 500 plus pages, the whimper the relationship ends upon—and the lack of drama getting there—prove to be one of the book’s bigger issues.
But the biggest problem, ultimately, isn’t where the book goes, it’s what’s left after it’s over. Any and all themes are underdeveloped, especially the male friendship theme Harbach seems to be reaching for. The friendship between Henry and Schwartz is tested, not unsurprisingly, by a female, but the camaraderie of the baseball team never seems to affect their on-the-field performance. What sort of connection, if any, the emerging sexual orientation of Affenlight has on this theme—there are hints all the time of ancient Greece, but nothing substantive—ends up lost in the labyrinth. For a book of such seemingly high regard, it is surprising to have to ask oneself: “What is the book really about?” and come up empty-handed.
Harbach, who worked on the novel for many years, and has written smartly in his journal N + 1 (including about David Foster Wallace, whose influence, to my surprise, is imperceptible on these pages), doesn’t seem terribly concerned with substance. Although he reaches for Melville often, the references seem more like genuflections than attempts at comparison (and generally not very clever, “The Sperm Squeezers” being the exception). After all, the baseball team is named for Ahab’s weapon of choice, and we all know—or at least Harbach assumes we do—how that one ended for the old captain (and that it was his own weapon that killed him). This lack of seriousness, in what otherwise purports to be a very serious novel, is rather refreshing, if empty. Literary fiction these days seems either to plumb the darkest portions of dark humor (Helen DeWitt’s “Lightning Rods”) or be serious by being totally unserious (Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies). Even the main plot twist, in the end, lightens what would have been an otherwise somber denouement (this point is admittedly undercut by the bizarrely Gothic and nearly book-ruining cemetery scene, which turns out to have a clunky Emerson connection). One would think that a serious novel about a lighter subject might come off as pointless, but “The Art of Fielding” avoids such a fate, if only narrowly. If you give this novel and Harbach enough time, and settle yourself into the world of Westish College, one wonders how you couldn’t end up enjoying this baseball novel—and even baseball itself, maybe—in the end.